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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Anthony France

Pressure mounts on Rishi Sunak for law change after ‘cowardly’ Lucy Letby avoids facing victims’ families at sentencing

Pressure is mounting on Rishi Sunak to pass laws stopping “cowardly” murderers like Lucy Letby refusing to appear for their sentencings.

Letby, 33, was absent from the dock at Manchester Crown Court as she was given whole-life terms for killing seven babies and the attempted murders of six more.

The Prime Minister said the Government is looking at changing the law so criminals are compelled to attend their sentencing hearings.

But Cheryl Korbel, the mother of shooting victim Olivia Pratt-Korbel, nine, and families of London victims Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa are campaigning for criminals to be compelled to hear of the suffering they caused.

Judges can order defendants to come to court before verdicts are delivered. If they fail to obey, they can be found in contempt of court and face up to two years in prison – but the law does not cover sentencing hearings.

Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “The first thing is to extend my sympathies to everyone affected by this.

“I think, like everyone reading about this, it’s just shocking and harrowing.

“Now, I think it’s cowardly that people who commit such horrendous crimes do not face their victims and hear first-hand the impact that their crimes have had on them and their families and loved ones.

“We are looking, and have been, at changing the law to make sure that that happens and that’s something that we’ll bring forward in due course.”

Ms Korbel said her “heart would go out to the families” of the babies attacked by Letby at the Countess of Chester Hospital.

She read an impact statement at Thomas Cashman’s sentencing when he failed to attend and said on Monday: “It’s important for the families.

“Writing the impact statement was really hard. It wasn’t going to take minutes. It was days, over a matter of weeks.

“It’s important for the offenders to listen to the pain that they’ve caused, the pain that is ongoing.

“Going to prison is supposed to be a rehabilitation.

“That first port of call of rehabilitation should be in that courtroom and standing there listening to the judge and listening to the families’ impact statements.”

Letby joins a string of offenders in recent years who have refused to attend court as their punishment is handed down.

Earlier this year, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said the Government was “committed” to changing the law.

On Monday, he said the Government was looking to change the law “at the earliest opportunity”.

It is understood plans could be put forward as early as the autumn, as soon as parliamentary time allows.

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Government of “dragging its heels” over changing the law.

He said: “I hope the Government will do it because I think it can be done very quickly.

Letby was sentenced with a whole life order for carrying out the murders and attempted murders of babies at The Countess of Chester Hospital (Jacob King/PA) (PA Wire)

“If they don’t, we will force an amendment to appropriate legislation. But actually, my position is to invite the Government to get on with it, to offer Labour’s support so this could go through very, very quickly.

“This isn’t the first case. The Government has been dragging its heels on this. Get on with it, for the sake of these victims, and of course, the other cases that went before it.”

Lord Thomas, a cross-bench peer and former Lord Chief Justice, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that for sentences short of whole-life terms the “obvious” answer is to have powers to add to the sentence if the person convicted fails to attend.

But he said the threat of a longer sentence would be “completely pointless” in the case of someone already receiving a whole-life order.

Addressing the option of forcibly requiring the convicted to attend sentencing, he added: “Having once seen someone in the United States bound and gagged in court, I don’t think that that is an appropriate solution.”

He said one alternative would be to broadcast the judge’s remarks to the person’s cell.

Jebina Islam, sister of Ms Nessa, 28, killed by Koci Selamaj in Cator Park, Kidbrooke in September 2021, said: “It’s amazing that this is actually happening.

“The thought of these predators choosing to come to court was truly outrageous and unfair for the victim and their families and now we have put a stop to this.

“I am over the moon that this change is happening and thank everyone for their support and love.”

The arrest of nurse Lucy Letby (Cheshire Constabulary/PA) (PA Media)

Ayse Hussein, cousin of Jan Mustafa – who was murdered in east London – and who has also campaigned on the issue, said: “In our case it was a double murder, and knowing that the perpetrator was allowed to sit comfortably in his cell while the judge read out the impact statements was a stab in the back.

“The perpetrator should be in the dock facing the family and listening to what he has put us through and to see the pain and tears, because he has caused this by killing our loved ones, but because of the law he doesn’t have to see or hear anything.

“This is wrong and has to change.”

London’s victims commissioner, Claire Waxman, said offenders must be made to face sentencing in court and hear the impact of their crimes, or face consequences if they refuse.

Letby’s judge, Mr Justice Goss, ordered that she be sent a transcript of his sentencing remarks and copies of the statements read out by the families of her victims.

He said: “The defendant, Lucy Letby, has refused to attend court for this sentence hearing. Accordingly, I have to sentence her in her absence.

“I shall deliver the sentencing remarks as if she was present to hear them. And I direct that she is provided with a transcript of my remarks and copies of the victim personal statements read to the court.”

The statement from the mother of twin boys Child E and Child F, who Letby was convicted of murdering and attempting to murder respectively, said her absence was “one final act of wickedness”.

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